Wednesday, April 17, 2002

If the workers are messed up, so are we
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Sure, morale stinks in lots of offices. One of the rituals of working life is complaining about the bosses' stupidity.
But the workplace problems in the B.C. government, revealed in the latest report from the province's auditor general, go far beyond the usual grumbling.
And although your first reaction may be a shrug - who cares if other people like their jobs - the problems are serious. They cost you money and hurt the service you get from government.
Auditor General Wayne Strelioff's report didn't come as a surprise to Premier Gordon Campbell, but it should still have given him a nasty jolt.
Strelioff's report was based on a survey of thousands of government workers in January, 2001. The research revealed a discouraged, frustrated workforce, made up of people who don't trust their bosses. They don't believe their leaders have any clear idea about that their departments are trying to accomplish and are afraid to offer suggestions in case they get in trouble.
If the issue was their happiness, you could likely afford to shrug.
But the real issue is organizational effectiveness - how well government works. And the auditor-general's report establishes that the organization is too sick to provide high-quality service.
The report compared the B.C. government ranks with other organizations, and found it failed to come close to the standards maintained by effective organizations.
The biggest problem is leadership. "I was disappointed to discover that employees in the B.C. public service do not trust or have confidence in their leaders," Strelioff found. "This issue permeated all of our findings and stood out overwhelmingly."
Only about 25 per cent of government employees were satisfied with their leaders. Managers were given low ratings for honest and open communications and rated as poor at providing direction or feedback.
And good ideas aren't seen as welcome. Two out of three employees believed that questioning policy or the way things are done would likely lead to criticism or punishment.
"Employees are not likely to suggest improvements or take reasonable risks if successes are unrewarded and mistakes are punished," Mr. Strelioff observes. Sounds like my workplace, you might be saying. But Strelioff compared results with surveys used to assess the best Canadian companies to work for. In those organizations about three our of four employees gave their leaders positive ratings - about three times the level of confidence and trust reported by B.C. government employees.
Young workers are particularly disgruntled. "They perceive a bureaucratic, slow-paced, hierarchal structure unattractive to young workers," the report found. "With the downsizing currently under way, the attraction of the public service as a place of employment is not likely to improve over the next few years."
It's not the Liberals' fault, although it's likely the results would be worse if the survey was repeated today.
But it is their problem. The Liberals plan a big, radical change to smaller, more creative, efficient government. That's not something you order; it's something motivated employees create.
The Liberals have promised some of the right changes, and made a big start by pulling together about 200 "leaders of today and tomorrow," including every deputy minister, for a leadership conference last week, with Campbell kicking things off.
But the Liberals still have to deal with their own broken promises about job cuts and their tendency to dismiss government workers as people not quite good enough to have made their way in the private sector.
It won't make headlines, and it's slow, hard work. But restoring trust to the government workplace may be one of the Liberals' greatest challenges.

Health cuts coming: Liberal MLAs got a detailed briefing on health cuts at a special caucus meeting Sunday. The rest of us will get the word on hospital closures and layoffs next week, with an open cabinet meeting Monday expected to set the stage for detailed announcements Tuesday.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at